Can Courage Be Taught?

While I’m off at a conference, I’d like to share this article from my archives.


Even with my limited military experience, I know the value of training, like breaking down a weapon and putting it back together, over and over. Take care of your weapon and it will take care of you, kind of thing. Various forms of combat training, mock emergency exercises, gas mask drills—all done with the goal of solidifying the important things in the brain so when the need arises, the body reacts with little or no hesitation.

I used to volunteer with a white-water rafting company. I trained with the rest of the staff before rafting season, and during the season we trained groups of clients in river safety before each trip. Weekend after weekend, and year after year, it all got drilled into my brain. And when I actually fell out of a raft one day and found myself trapped underneath it, spinning in the current at the base of a waterfall, my body did what my brain had been trained for—and I did exactly what was necessary to escape, without panic.

Knowing the value of training is also the reason I always read through the emergency procedure literature on an airplane before takeoff and watch the flight attendant demonstrate getting out of a seatbelt and putting on an oxygen mask. I look at the pictures and go through the steps in my mind, imagining myself opening those emergency doors and escaping. I want my mind to be ready, just in case, so my body responds accordingly.

The armed forces, police, firefighters, and emergency/rescue workers train hard, and sometimes for years, in order to respond correctly in the face of danger or disaster. When asked about their bravery, many of these people will tell you they are just doing their jobs the way they were trained to do them. I can see this might be true the first time a person is tested, but what about after that?

It takes real bravery to face an enemy more than once, whether the enemy is found in nature or a fellow human. Doing so could be grounded in training, as well as camaraderie—watching somebody else’s back, not wanting to let your buddy down. It could also be the result of truly knowing what the right thing is, and doing it. Otherwise, ordinary people wouldn’t rush into burning buildings to save strangers.

But where do the roots of such bravery come from? Maybe from parents or others whom children admire, teaching them by their words and actions to love their country, respect life, do the right thing, and make a difference. These are the children who grow up to choose vocations that take them into danger or who dedicate their lives to helping others. Or who simply live ordinary lives with grace and conviction (which ultimately leads to a better world).

We may not be able to teach bravery, but perhaps we can plant the seeds of courage.

Where do you think courage comes from?

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